The Talos Principle

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The Talos Principle on Steam

MSRP: $39.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release: 12/11/14

Steam rating: 96% positive


I’ve played a lot of puzzle games throughout the years, but most of them have been of the more casual variety.  When you talk about puzzle must-plays, well, I haven’t played any of them.  Myst frustrated me to no end. Portal is still sitting untouched in my Steam library, despite having owned it for years. I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe I only like the idea of puzzle games, because I’m struggling with The Talos Principle as well.

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And really, it’s the puzzles that just aren’t resonating with me. Although I’d be perfectly content to work on the tiling puzzles made up of Tetris-style pieces all day long, the main type of puzzle seems to be made up of a series of electronic devices, switches, and jammers, and in many cases require some fairly precise movements to avoid things that seem to exist solely to blow you into smithereens.  It’s not something I can see myself doing over and over for twenty hours or so.

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However, if both of the types of puzzles appeal, the package they are wrapped up in exquisite. The Talos Principle looks great, it sound great, and the scraps of story you’re fed oh-so-slowly are fascinating to the point I’m considering trying to push through the puzzling to get to the next little piece of the narrative. It’s that good.

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Croteam gets bonus points for putting Motion Sickness Options right into the main menu of the game.  As someone who has previously experienced motion sickness while gaming, I decided not to take the risk, and immediately set it to Autoprevent, so I could focus on the game.  Although I may not be getting the most realistic experience, being able to actually play the game without feeling ill is mandatory, and something I wish more developers would take into account.

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The Talos Principle seems to strike a good balance of puzzles and story, and if the puzzles were of just about any other type, I’d be plowing through the 15-20 hours of game time. Since they’re not, I may seek out a walkthrough for the puzzles, because I’d love to explore the world, pick through the bits of information scattered in the memory banks of the game’s computer terminals, and figure out what exactly is going on here. That said, this seems to be a paring that works well for a majority of players.

 

Renowned Explorers: International Society

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Renowned Explorers: International Society on Steam

MSRP: $24.99 (complete) / $19.99 (base game)

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release: 9/2/15

Steam rating: 93% positive


Since I was both a huge fan (to the tune of over 90 hours played) of Reus, the first title made by Abbey Games, and a sucker for any kind of game about exploration, picking up Renowned Explorers: International Society was a no brainer.  Judging by the time and attention the developers give to this game, not only in regular updates, but in things like weekly community challenges, they’re still just as excited by it as I was. It draws ideas from a myriad of genres to put together one of those most unique strategy-adventure titles available.

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When you first start out, the game will overwhelm you with choices. For folks who are used to diving into higher difficulties and permadeath, this may make things pretty frustrating from the get-go.  Initially, you are limited to a handful of the 20 characters to lead your expedition, and due to the limit of three explorers per crew, you will always be without one of tho four “classes”, which can have a pretty profound effect on how you need to proceed.

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Each potential crew member will excel at one of the three means of resolution (friendly, devious, or combat), and although you may be tempted to build a balanced crew, the game will actually play smoother if you heavily favor one resolution style over the others, although each expedition location favors a certain type. On the easier difficulties, it may not matter much what you choose, but as soon as you start moving up the difficulty scale, it will become clear very quickly what kind of composition works in certain places, and what kinds do not.

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I’ve put more than 10 hours into the game at this point (most of it on discovery mode and the lowest difficulty setting), and I know I have barely scratched the surface of the complexities of the game. For me, there’s very little more delightful than a game seems like it should be simple enough, but has layers upon layers of things to learn.  It allows you to keep playing, and to keep being challenged, long after other games have been completed and put away.  Taking notes wouldn’t be a wasted endeavor here.

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The main objectives in each map don’t change, but the things that happen along the way, as well as the treasures you might find, vary from game to game.  Even though it might take many hours to discover everything the game has to offer, it may not feel that way since the end goals are always the same on a given map.

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If I had to pick one thing to complain about, it’s that this game desperately needs a demo of some sort – it’s not going to be for everyone.  Since there is no playable demo available, watching a good Let’s Play (like the one below) will give you a good idea if you’ll be charmed or very very annoyed.  Some of the information here is technically incorrect, but it’s a pretty good showcase of how the game works.

I personally think Renowned Explorers: International Society is a fantastic game with a whole lot of depth and replayability.  It combines tactical combat, RPG-like character development, risk vs. reward gameplay, and wacky stories. The first DLC, More to Explore, adds two additional expedition locations, treasure-related perks, and more backstory than you can shake a stick at, and in my opinion, this makes it completely worth picking up the complete package.

Fable: The Lost Chapters

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Fable: The Lost Chapters on Steam

MSRP: $9.99

Platforms: Windows, Mac, XBox

Release: 9/20/05

Steam rating: 93% positive


Fable: The Lost Chapters is the expanded version created for Windows of the original Fable game made for XBox.  It features additional content not available in the original game, and until 2014, when Fable: Anniversary was released, was the only Fable title available on PC.   What really set Fable (and its sequels) apart from other RPGs of the time was the morality system, and the fact that, even playing as a completely evil and heartless character, you could still complete the main story.

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As someone who’s never felt the urge to go full on dark-side in an RPG, there was still a lot about the Fable series I enjoyed. I think Fable 2 is the only game I ever played all the way through on my XBox 360, and for me, what made it great was all the extra stuff that was weaseled in around the main story.  Although not truly open-world, Fable: The Lost Chapters features a ridiculous amount of side quests, puzzles, and collectibles.  If you’re the type to hunt down all those things, you can quite easily almost triple the play time of this 15ish hour game.

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The playable character is known only as the Hero of Oakvale, and he is taken to the Hero’s Guild to begin training after bandits attack his home town, killing his father and kidnapping his mother and sister. You are very definitely a chosen one, and that’s set up right from the get go.  However you choose to fulfill your destiny will be apparent both in your appearance and in the way the NPCs in the game react to you.

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The biggest downside of the game, as I see it, is that it takes awhile to really draw you in – the earliest quests in the game are all part of an extended tutorial to get you accustomed to all the systems and mechanics.  It might turn off players who are playing for the first time without the benefit of the nostalgia glasses.

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I did struggle to get the game to run on Windows 10 (and there are reports of similar issues all the way back to Windows 7).  Running the game in Win XP (Service Pack 3) compatibility allows the game to be played, although I still experienced crashes on exit. If you prefer, Fable: Anniversary is an HD remaster, designed to run on more modern hardware, that also adds achievements, but at 3.5 times the price.  As someone who doesn’t mind dated graphics so much, I find the original to be completely serviceable with that one small tweak.

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Although Fable: The Lost Chapters may be a somewhat slower RPG than you are used to, I think in a lot of ways, it’s still a very interesting game to play through.  It has that distinctive Molyneux charm, and the things it does well, it does very very well. If you’ve never played a Fable game (or if somehow, god forbid, you’ve only ever had the chance to play Fable 3), this is a fantastic choice for $10.  If you’ve played it before, and want to relive the nostalgia, this is solid gold.

Floating Point

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Floating Point on Steam

MSRP: Free

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release: 6/6/14

Steam rating: 96% positive


Usually, if you stumble across a free game on Steam, it’s a lure to get you into a deep labyrinth of microtransactions. Floating Point is not one of those games.  In this case, free means free – there’s not even a donation option.

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Gameplay for me was reminiscent of PixelJunk Eden, but with a little less graphical polish. You play entirely with the mouse, grappling from platform to platform while collecting all the red bars on the level.  Although each level has a discernable end, you’re also playing for score, which is based on how smoothly you’re able to move – bars are worth more when you hit them while moving quickly.

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It’s not a game you’re likely to lose days to, but it’s a nice low-key game to unwind with.  Considering the complete and utter lack of cost, there’s no reason not to add it to your Steam library.

Skullgirls

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Skullgirls on Steam

MSRP: $9.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, XBox 360

Release: 8/22/13

Steam rating: 94% positive


Today, I learned that I completely lack the manual dexterity to play fighting games with a keyboard.  And also, that I really really dislike it when a game tells you to press a key that’s not actually on your keyboard.

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For the record, when you first go into Skullgirls – the LK button is actually the Z key if you’re using the default layout.  I’m not entirely sure why they couldn’t just say that, but it took me forever to figure out which button was the LK (light kick) button. I still haven’t figured out how to return to the main menu from inside the game.

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Control scheme irritations aside, I can see why this game is popular with folks who like fighting games, but it did nothing for me.  Story mode on easy is simple enough that I could get through the first several battles with no idea how to do basic things like crouch, block, or perform any kind of combo. I decided to visit the tutorials instead, and try to learn how to actually play the game.

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Now the tutorials are no joke, and with the arrow keys on your standard keyboard, it can be difficult to manage to press the right buttons precisely enough that the game recognizes them as pressed simultaneously. I spent an obnoxiously long time on some of the tutorials, not because I couldn’t fathom what it was asking me to do, but because I couldn’t do it. It feels like there’s a lot of good information there, though, for someone more dexterous than I am, or someone comfortable with a controller.

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If, at some point in the future, I decide to go back to Skullgirls, I will do it with a controller in hand to see if that will feel more natural.  For fighting game aficionados, Skullgirls might be a value title to add to your library if you’re on board with the anime aesthetic.

Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood

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Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood on Steam

MSRP: $9.99*

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, XBox One, Android, iOS, WinPhone

Release: 9/25/13

Steam rating: 98% positive

*Price may vary by edition and platform. Price listed is for Steam Collector’s Edition


I debated not touching this game until I actually had time to finish out the first game in the series, but honestly, I was gobsmacked to see a hidden object game with a such a high rating.  I mean, all of the Artifex Mundi games are good for what they are, but it’s not terribly common for even those to be so universally well-reviewed.  I promised myself I wouldn’t play too far in – I really prefer to do these things in order, but I got absolutely sucked in and played for more than an hour. Oops.

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There’s good variety thus far in both the types of hidden object puzzles, and in the other puzzles as well.  I’ve impatiently used the hint button more often than usual for me, but just about every time, it resulted in a forehead-slapping moment – I have yet to come across anything that wasn’t obviously apparent as soon as I revealed the hint.

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The evidence board mechanic is still present, and it’s just as important.  If you don’t take the time to figure things out on the evidence board, you’ll quickly stall out.  Collecting and interpreting evidence isn’t the most challenging part of the game, but it really helps you stay connected to the plot.  Like most hidden object games, you’re tasked with stopping some sort of ancient supernatural evil, but there’s also a family you’re trying to save (and a helpful prisoner you’re trying to free).

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In a lot of ways, I’m glad I chose this for a day where I didn’t have tons of time to devote to gaming, or I might have binged the whole thing, and I’m guessing, in one way or another, there’ll be spoilers for the first game.  I’m hoping to pick up the third chapter in the series during the Steam Winter sale, and then carving out a weekend to just binge my way through all three.  Normally, that’s not something I’d say about hidden object games, but the addition of the evidence mechanic does serve to make the Enigmatis series a little more compelling than most games in the genre.

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If you aren’t attracted to the hidden object genre as a whole, there’s probably not enough here to change your mind, but the Enigmatis games are pretty much the cream of the crop.  Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood will run you about 5 hours including the bonus chapter, and you’ll likely spend even longer on it if you choose to hunt down all the collectibles. Snap it up instantly if you see it for 50% off or better.

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic

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Dark Messiah of Might and Magic on Steam (demo available)

MSRP: $9.99

Platforms: Windows, XBox 360

Release: 10/25/06

Steam rating: 95% positive


The Might & Magic franchise has been around for thirty years now, and encompasses multiple genres of games.  The earliest Might & Magic games were party-based RPGS, but the turn-based strategy spin-offs – Heroes of Might & Magic – might be even more well known.  When Ubisoft acquired the rights to the Might & Magic series in 2003, one of the first games they published in the universe was Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, a first person hack & slash RPG, which seems to be related to the other titles in the Might & Magic franchise only in name.

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Which is not to say it isn’t freaking fantastic in its own right.  This was a party I arrived at about 10 years too late, because in 2006, I was eyeball deep in Oblivion for pretty much the whole year. Although the two games superficially share a genre, they’re also worlds apart. Where Oblivion featured an open world and nearly infinite character customization, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a game on rails, with a slender skill tree. But what it does, it does so right.

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I mean, who hasn’t wanted to kick the crap out of the enemy every now and then?  Here, you’re not only able to kick, you’re actively encouraged to do so. You can kick enemies into holes, into campfires, into spike walls. It’s the kind of mechanic I can’t recall seeing anywhere else, and I’m surprised, because it’s just as fun as it sounds.  Sure, kicking is tied into your stamina – you’re not a ninja after all – but it’s an interesting spin that makes melee combat feel so much more satisfying.

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Of course, you can still choose to focus on archery or on magic, and the attention to detail in the game’s physics makes these options equally appealing. It’s a 10 year old game, and it looks like a 10 year old game, but it still plays beautifully, with the controls feeling very responsive.

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I don’t dabble in hack & slash too often, but I’ll certainly be returning to Dark Messiah of Might and Magic sooner rather than later.  The price feels spot on with the age of the game and length of the single player experience (about 10 – 12 hours), but it also comes with the multiplayer client, which although isn’t terribly populated nowadays, is still supported.

Lumino City

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Lumino City on Steam

MSRP: $19.99 (Steam) / $4.99 (mobile)

Platforms: Win, Mac, iOS

Release: 12/3/14

Steam rating: 92% positive


Frequently, innovation in video games comes at the detriment of the game itself – sometimes the very thing which makes a game innovative is the same thing that takes away from the enjoyment of the game.  However, at its core, Lumino City is a perfectly passable puzzle game – it lacks the depth of story of a point-n-click adventure game, but the puzzles are frequent and fairly logical while still being challenging.

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Where Lumino City sets itself apart from other puzzle games is in the art style.  There is no computer animation here – every single thing in the game is hand crafted.  It’s likely this is what drew someone to play this game over other puzzlers, and in this, its a smashing success.  Everything is gorgeous to look at, and the animation doesn’t seem to suffer for it in the least.

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That said, the art is the only real standout feature of the game.  The puzzles are good, but not great, the game is extremely light on story, and although creating five hours of content with paper, wires and motors is a pretty impressive feat, a five hour playtime feels a little light for a $20 asking price.

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There is a hint system, if you were to get stuck on a particular puzzle, and I really liked the idea of gating the hints behind yet another set of – admittedly much simpler – puzzles. For someone who enjoys the sparseness of the puzzle game genre, Lumino City is absolutely worth a playthrough, although I would recommend waiting for a sale unless you really want to support the artistic efforts of the developers.   As far as art is concerned, Lumino City is a steal, but as a video game, the price is set perhaps a little too high (a point that’s driven home by the fact the mobile version is only 25% of the price of the Steam version).

The Long Dark (Early Access)

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The Long Dark on Steam (Early Access)

MSRP: $19.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, XBox One

Release: 9/22/14

Steam rating: 94% positive


It seems like the majority of early access games on Steam are some variation on the sandbox-survival theme.  The Long Dark sets itself apart by eschewing any kind of supernatural elements – you only need to worry about hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and the relentless cold.  If that sounds dull, you should also know that, even on the lowest difficulty, it’s punishingly difficult.

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Playing it for the first time in several months, I was overwhelmed by the amount of progress that’s been made – story mode is still unreleased, but they’ve added challenge modes to the basic sandbox mode, for folks that prefer a little bit more direction.  Despite the lengthy period that The Long Dark has been available as an early access title, it’s not languishing – the team working on it is growing and constantly making improvements.

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Playing on pensive, I still almost died from the cold on my very first day, trying to find a safe space to bunk down for the night and gather every precious candy bar I could find. You start out with no specialized survival skills, and no tools.  You will need to explore and scavenge and possibly even get lucky if you want to make it.

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The Long Dark is fairly slow paced, and you should expect to have to figure out pretty much everything yourself – yet another small thing that feels very authentic to me.  Although I don’t want to dive too deep in until the promised Story Mode is released, the sandbox mode feels very solid and is absolutely worth playing now.  At the very least, if a realistic survival simulator appeals, keep an eye on this one.

Turbo Pug

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Turbo Pug on Steam

MSRP: $0.99

Platform: Windows

Release: 11/9/15

Steam rating: 93% positive


Every time I think I might actually know a little bit about just about every gaming genre there is, I run into a new one.  Technically, this time it’s a sub-genre of platforming, so I guess it’s not entirely shocking I wouldn’t have stumbled across any endless runners before Turbo Pug.   Basically, it’s a platforming game with no option to stop and form any kind of strategy.  One mistimed jump and it’s game over.

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I don’t get it. I mean, sure cute little pixelated puppies and unlockables and leaderboards feel like a recipe for success (and given its high Steam rating, and the mess of Turbo Pug sequels, I guess it is).  You get points both for distance run and for any collectibles you manage to mush your adorable little puggy face into along the way.

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Procedural generation means no learning to play via muscle memory, and although I really liked the idea of unlockable characters, not having any idea what causes them to unlock was a little frustrating.  For someone who likes platformers, and has a dollar to spare, I can see the allure, but this just wasn’t my game.